Archaeological evidence supplemented with genetics for Yu Hong

Of course I am biased when I say that I consider anthropology one of the coolest disciplines. But I have reasons as to why I hold this opinion. One of the reasons is that anthropology has and will always be a discipline that integrates and applies methods from other disciplines. The following new research I will share with you is a prime example of what I’m taking about.

In 1999, near the city of Taiyuan, in the Shanxi province, central China, archaeologists uncovered an astonishing find. You may remember it. I do. It is considered one of the most important archaeological finds in Marble Etchings from Yu Hong’s TombChina because this Sui dynasty tomb held a sarcophagus with artifacts from the west. The man buried in the tomb went by Yu Hong and inscriptions in his tomb describe him as chieftain of the Central Asian people who had settled in China during the Sui dynasty (A.D. 580 to 618). Yu Hong died in 592 A.D. His wifey died several years later, and was laid to rest by his side.

If you want, there’s a documentary of the discovery of Yu Hong’s tomb on Amazon’s video download service, Unbox.

Drawings of panels from Yu Hong’s marble sarcophagusI’ve been always curious about this site because of the western artifacts inside his tomb. After doing some digital digging, I found drawings of the reliefs in Yu Hong’s tomb. I have scattered the images around this post. Being Iranian, I clearly can see that these images are not as much Chinese as they are Persian. They look like the images you see on Persian miniatures and inside the Persian Book of Kings, the Shahnameh.

Drawings of panels from Yu Hong’s marble sarcophagusThis totally now makes sense, because what is known of Yu Hong is that his career started in service of the most powerful nomadic tribe at the time, known as the Ruru. Adapted from Wikipedia, the Ruru were,

“a confederation of pre-Mongolian nomadic tribes from the northern borders of China that were kicking it strong until about the late 4th century to 6th century. The Rouran are said to be the later appeared in Europe as the Eurasian Avars or Tartars”

Drawings of panels from Yu Hong’s marble sarcophagusMore importantly, Yu Hong was posted as an emissary to several countries, including Iran. So now the puzzle pieces start fitting into place. Yu Hong was probably a worldly traveler, making his way up and down the Silk Roads that connected much of Asia to Europe and the Middle East.

But what remained to be answered is what is known of Yu Hong?

In a new Proceedings of the Royal Society B publication, several geneticists from the College of Life Science and the Ancient DNA Laboratory, Research Center for Chinese Frontier Archaeology, at Jilin University in Changchun, China have tried to answer what can be known of Yu Hong’s ancestry from his genes. They analyzed his mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) which only comes from the mother’s side. They have reported their findings in the following paper, “Evidence of ancient DNA reveals the first European lineage in Iron Age Central China,” and the paragraph below is the abstract where I have highlighted the most important findings,

“Various studies on ancient DNA have attempted to reconstruct population movement in Asia, with much interest focused on determining the arrival of European lineages in ancient East Asia. Here, we discuss our analysis of the mitochondrial DNA of human remains excavated from the Yu Hong tomb in Taiyuan, China, dated 1400 years ago. The burial style of this tomb is characteristic of Central Asia at that time. Our analysis shows that Yu Hong belonged to the haplogroup U5, one of the oldest western Eurasian-specific haplogroups, while his wife can be classified as haplogroup G, the type prevalent in East Asia. Our findings show that this man with European lineage arrived in Taiyuan approximately 1400 years ago, and most probably married a local woman. Haplogroup U5 was the first west Eurasian-specific lineage to be found in the central part of ancient China, and Taiyuan may be the easternmost location of the discovered remains of European lineage in ancient China.”

Now that’s just the genetic evidence they have gathered from his maternal side, so when you read National Geographic claim that this man was European — be a bit skeptical of the headlines. Remember, his Y chromosome can show a much different data. For all we know, his Dad coulda been part of the haplogroup G and married a U5 haplogroup wife which ended up being Yu Hong’s mom. Until his Y chromosome is analyzed, we may never know. What we know is that at least half of Yu Hong genes were most likely European.

Drawings of panels from Yu Hong’s marble sarcophagusWe already knew that Asia was intimately connected with the rest of the world. It did not remain a separate world, although many people may consider that. There are a lot of linguistic, mythological, cultural, musical, medical, etc. similarities between East Asia and East Europe and the Middle East. I mentioned this before, and I’ll say it again, this is so because trade roads were used for thousands of years to connect this massive continent. So this study isn’t all to surprising.

What this study is is a classic synthesis of multidisciplinary approach, with archaeological and genetic evidence. Despite the mtDNA only evidence, the fact that there’s Western artifacts in this tomb and that correlates to genetic data of the inhabitants just simply seem like it goes hand in hand. I hope more archaeological studies do this, especially with the advances we are making in ancient DNA studies.


7 thoughts on “Archaeological evidence supplemented with genetics for Yu Hong

  1. “What we know is that at least half of Yu Hong genes were most likely European.”

    No, we don’t. We know that one tiny portion of his genome carries a signature that is otherwise found predominantly in western Eurasia. This tells us very little about the remainder of his genome: for instance, Yu Hong’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother could have been European, while every other one of his ancestors was Asian.

    The fact that the mtDNA evidence fits with the archaeology is all very nice, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that this genetic data is based on ONE locus. There’s an unpleasant habit in the literature at the moment of depicting Y-DNA and mtDNA together as providing complete genealogical information, when in fact these are convenient but not necessarily particularly informative markers.

  2. Mesk, I may have phrased what I wrote incorrectly because what you clarified is what I intended on saying.

    Perhaps if I wrote,

    “What we know from this study alone is that at most of Yu Hong’s genes were most likely of European origin,”

    then that would be more in line with what I wanted to imply.

    However, I already stated the one locus limit and how Y chromosomal studies may either support more evidence of his non-Asian ancestry or show that maybe his father’s lineage was more Asian than not. And, I criticized at least National Geographic for taking this analysis to a completely distorted conclusion that all of Yu Hong was European.

    Anyways, thanks for the clarification. I appreciate the input.


  3. Hi Kambiz,

    You offered a clarifying statement:

    “What we know from this study alone is that at most of Yu Hong’s genes were most likely of European origin,”

    …but this is even less conservative than your previous formulation. We simply cannot say anything about “most” of Yu Hong’s genes from this study, since it looked solely at a single locus. As I said above:

    “Yu Hong’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother’s mother could have been European, while every other one of his ancestors was Asian.”

    In other words, only one direct female ancestor need be of European ancestry to create this mtDNA profile; essentially the entirety of Yu Hong’s nuclear genome could be Asian in origin, and this survey would have been unable to detect that.

    What can we say from this study? Simply this:

    “At least one of Yu Hong’s female ancestors was most likely descended from a western Eurasian lineage.”

    I appreciate your criticism of the National Geographic’s exaggerated claims, but you didn’t go far enough. Mind you, it’s hard to blame the magazine when even the scientific literature is bloated with similar exaggerated claims regarding the information content of single-locus studies.

    I think I need to write up a broader critique of the community’s current blind reliance on mtDNA and Y-DNA studies to inform estimates of ancestry to make my case clearer – just as soon as I get some free time!

  4. Kambiz,

    I enjoyed reading your article. Although I agree with Mesk that somewhere in Yu Hong’s line would be European descent, I understand it was something you implied.

  5. Jahdal and Mesk,

    I think you guys are missing the point. I am outlining how genetic data and archaeological data are complementing each other. The degree to which Yu Hong was of European ancestry is vague at this point. What is not vague is that he has some European ancestry and some European/Middle Eastern artifacts in his tomb. Curious correlation, that’s it.


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